Short answer: Wolf Hall is awesome!
Longer answer: Hilary Mantel wrote a beautifully huge book. It is obvious so much care went into writing Cromwell’s story and crafting the world in which he lived.
Three surprising literary choices made the novel an engrossing read: present tense, modern language and a lack of signifiers regarding Cromwell.
Wolf Hall begins with a single chapter to set up Cromwell’s youth in Putney. The present tense is unexpected – most historical novels use the past tense, logically so. Maybe Mantel wants the scenes she used to describe his childhood to be in the present because they would eventually prove to be memories Cromwell returns to and are more immediate to him.
With the turn of a page that theory didn’t pan out. In the next chapter, set twenty-seven years later, the tense is still in the present, even more surprising. It took me about fifty pages to finally accept that Mantel wasn’t going to switch to the past tense. (There may be some sections that are in the past tense but it is difficult to recall. The transition between past and present is fluid.)
The present tense makes everything feel immediate, something I don’t think I have experienced before in a historical novel. Usually with historical fiction I feel like I am spying on a time I know nothing about. I get a glimpse of a lost world. The combination of Mantel’s verb tense choice and views into Cromwell’s home life made my very sympathetic to him. I have to say, by the end of the book I decidedly liked him and would be pleased to know someone like him. Not the usual picture one paints of Cromwell.
Another choice that brought me close to Cromwell was the lack to identifiers regarding him. That second chapter 27 years later, begins like this:
So: Stephen Gardiner. Going out, as he’s coming in. It’s wet and for a night in April, unseasonably warm, but Gardiner wears furs, which look like oily and dense black feathers; he stands now, ruffling them, gathering his clothes about his tall straight person like black angel’s wings.
“Late,” Master Stephen says unpleasantly.
He is bland. “Me, or your good self?”
“You.” He waits. (page 14)
Let’s go through the “he’s.” First one – Cromwell. Second is Gardiner. After Gardiner speaks, Cromwell is bland, but then Gardiner waits.
Despite the first chapter also being this way (He walks into a room, as opposed to Cromwell walks into a room), it confused me at first. The tense became very obvious. I found myself reading sections several times to make sure I completely understood who was who.
So when Mantel finally writes a simple sentence like Cromwell walks into a room, it stands out and made me pay attention. It felt more important when the narrator says Cromwell’s name as opposed to when other characters did.
This vagueness made a huge impact on me. Cromwell felt slippery, constantly changing and falling through my fingers. Like a shadow in the corner that you can’t see when you look straight on. This feeling completely lines up with how Cromwell is perceived by his peers. No one knows the truth about his past – and it doesn’t help that Cardinel Wolsey amused himself by making up stories about Cromwell. Cromwell himself allowed people to believe something untrue about him if it served his purposes.
The lack of a clear name by the narrator pushed this feeling along. Mantel found a clever way to evoke in the reader an emotion her characters feel.
The clarity of Wolf Hall despite its weighty subject matter and mantle of history is impressive. Mantel chose to use only modern language, even within dialogue, which allowed the story to be engaging instead of “accurate” to the times.
And speaking of dialogue, there is a lot of talking for a historical novel. The novel isn’t weighed down with exposition about the Tudor line and the wars in Europe and the religious reform in England. Maybe because Mantel is British, she lives with this history, this story, so doesn’t feel compelled to explain everything.
As someone who doesn’t know a whole lot about Henry the Eight’s reign, I was a little worried I might get lost in the names and event. But Mantel had a way to handle that, something I’m a big proponent of. I call it “one sentence” – as in just one sentence could explain something so the reader knows and can move on. Mantel has a bunch of “one sentences” that work well to set up an event or explain a new personality; well, maybe sometimes two or three sentences are used – this is complicated stuff.
My favorite example of this is a reference to the affair Cromwell has with his married sister-in-law after his wife’s death. There have been no scenes showing the affair, just hints of glances shared, and then, many pages later:
[To Cromwell] Stephen says, “Of course you may have other sons. Aren’t you looking forward to the wife Alice [More] will find you? She is warm to your praises.”
He feels afraid. It is like Mark, the lute player: people imagining what they cannot know. He is sure he and Johane have been secret. He says, “Don’t you ever think of marrying?” (page 193)
I was actually starting to get curious about Cromwell and Johane when that confirmation appeared. It’s like Mantel knew it was time to flush out that one subplot – in one sentence.
Of course, this is more difficult with matters of state but I never felt like I didn’t understand what was happening. In some ways, Cromwell is the ideal character to see the beginning of the religious reformation in England. His hands were in every pot. He had eyes and ears everywhere. He prodded the reforms along and wrote most of the acts Parliament would accept.
The only thing I had a question about had nothing to do with the story or writing – it’s the title. Wolf Hall, or Wulfhall, is the main estate in the Seymour family, from which comes Jane Seymour, King Henry’s third wife. Wolf Hall ends with Cromwell scheduling Henry’s 1535 procession and he plans for five days at Wolf Hall. Cromwell shows interest in Jane Seymour in the second half of the novel so you are left wondering if that is why he plans to travel with the King’s procession there. But that doesn’t seem like enough of a reason to title a book Wolf Hall, even though it is a fantastic title that jumps off the shelf.
So I went to trusty Wikipedia and its page for Wolf Hall. Turns out the title is also a reference to a Latin phrase: Homo homini lupus, or “man is a wolf to his fellow man” (“man is wolf to man”, for short). Once I read this I remembered that this phrase was used once by Cromwell to comment on a particular situation. It didn’t stand out at the time but the phrase, and subsequent title choice, make sense.
Man prey on other men. Cromwell navigates in a world with many wolves and is one himself. Everyone scrambles for the king’s favor and would just as soon bite a man – or worse – to get ahead.
King Henry VII could also be seen as a wolf: he consolidates his power so Rome can’t dictate to him, he silences disloyalty, he pursues women at his whim, all of which leaves destruction in his wake. The fact that the Seymour family seat is called Wolf Hall and is the next step in Henry’s constant pursuits makes the title more apt.
Conclusion: Read this book. It will absorb you. You will think about the characters when you are not peering over Cromwell’s shoulder. You might even get a little crush on Cromwell. And you’ll definitely get a crush on Hilary Mantel and feel compelled to seek out her other novels. (She has nine.)
A resounding success for the first book in this little experiment. I can’t wait until Wednesday when I can buy the next book: The Music Room by William Fiennes.